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The Art of Efficient Problem-Solving: More Than Just Skill

Have you ever wondered why two equally skilled individuals can have drastically different efficiencies in solving the same problem? This question struck me as I observed various people working on SQL tasks. Remarkably, some completed the task in just 10 minutes, while others took up to 2 hours. Why such a disparity?

Interestingly, everyone in this group rated themselves 7 out of 10 in SQL proficiency. Certainly, some people might have misrated themselves, or used different scales. But even among those with similar knowledge levels, one major difference stood out – their approach to problem-solving. It’s fascinating how the approach, more than the skill level, dictates efficiency.

However, the right approach, honed through experience, can be a game-changer. By watching them, I’ve identified five key steps to streamline the learning curve and enhance efficiency in any endeavor, including SQL:

  1. Focus on the Core: Start with the main thread or problem. In SQL, start with selecting the right table. Once you’ve done that, choosing fields and building your query becomes easier.
  1. Leverage Available Tools: Utilize features like IntelliSense in SQL. This tool auto-completes field names and commands, saving time and reducing errors such as misspellings that can cause unnecessary delays.
  1. Simplify Concepts: Start with using aliases in SQL. Instead of memorizing long table structures, use concise, meaningful aliases. For instance, ‘c’ for customers and ‘o’ for orders. This makes your code easier to read and remember.
  1. Begin with Familiar Territory: Break down the problem and start with what you know. In SQL, begin with a single table and gradually incorporate additional tables as you build your query.
  1. Validate Your Progress: Regularly check that you’re making positive progress. Execute your code often. This practice helps you stay on track and catch errors early, rather than revisiting and debugging later.

These steps, while tailored for SQL, can be universally applied to many other fields. The essence lies in taking a step back to assess and refine your approach. Whether it’s SQL or any other skill, the right strategy can dramatically improve your efficiency and output.

This observation goes beyond just coding; it’s about how we approach problems in our professional lives. A methodical, well-thought-out approach not only saves time but also enhances the quality of work. It’s a testament to the fact that experience isn’t just about knowing more; it’s about knowing the right approach.

Why is Design Important?

In today’s tech-driven world, design is no longer just a visual element. It’s a powerful force that can make or break a company. Look at the iPhone’s fusion of artistry and innovation or Elon Musk’s visionary ideas in electric cars. Both are testaments to the significance of design.

But what happens when design is overlooked?

Let’s explore the real-world implications of design neglect, where one company’s flawed design decisions reveal a harsh truth: bad design can be the silent killer of companies.

A few years ago, my company selected a prominent HR software provider, a name synonymous with NBA jerseys and women’s soccer. On the surface, they seemed poised for success, having recently merged two major companies and with plans for product enhancement and cross-selling.

However, the problem lay in their design philosophy.

Instead of crafting a thoughtful design, they opted to amalgamate the “best of” their two existing apps. This decision proved disastrous for this type of software. It was akin to forcibly marrying two mismatched puzzle pieces, resulting in a disjointed and ill-fitting solution.

The repercussions of this design choice were profound:

  • Administrative Hassles: Managing two separate systems required administrators to learn and use both, introducing complexity and challenges during implementations.
  • Duplication of Infrastructure: Each system had its distinct code base, leading to the replication of reporting tools and APIs. This substantially increased the workload for users attempting to learn and implement them.
  • Support Challenges: Support personnel were restricted to working on one system, often leaving clients more knowledgeable than their own support staff. Resolving issues frequently necessitated the involvement of multiple personnel, resulting in extended response times.
  • Data Synchronization Problems: Data needed to flow between these systems, but there was no seamless way to synchronize it. The absence of synchronization led to a cascade of downstream issues.

Within the software company, problems escalated. Protracted support queues, lingering software glitches, and a revolving door of employees became the norm.

Despite its subpar design, the company won’t vanish overnight due to legacy clients and the complexities of transitioning HR systems. Nonetheless, I foresee a gradual exodus of clients as competitors with superior design or fresh alternatives gain momentum. Someday, they’ll reflect on their downward spiral and wonder where they went astray.

The answer will be glaringly evident: they fell victim to bad design.

This real-world example underscores the profound impact of design on a company’s destiny. It is a stark reminder that design isn’t confined to aesthetics alone; it profoundly influences functionality, efficiency, and user experience. Businesses that disregard structure do so at their peril, often succumbing to a gradual decline driven by poor decisions.

In Teams We Trust: The Secret Ingredient to High Performing Groups

A few years ago, Google conducted a survey of its employees to determine what’s the main contributor to a high performing team. As I saw the headline I was intrigued to find out the result. I was sure leadership was the number one reason for team success- mostly because I was a manager and I had read a lot about the impact of good leadership. I read eagerly hoping to learn some tips. I even anticipated secondary reasons like: talent, team composition. But when I read the results I was shocked and disappointed by their conclusion- it did not include any of my assumptions. The research claimed that the #1 factor for high performing teams was “Psychological Safety” aka trust. It didn’t make sense to me. In general, I think people are good- especially in a professional environment. I thought in any reasonable organization people dont lie to each other, and are going to get paid on time. I really didn’t understand what this was trying to say- was it just some new fad? 

A few months later I finally understood.

The company I worked for at the time had reorganized. Within a few weeks my team’s work quality started to suffer or so it seemed. Almost each time after we released a new update of the software to our operations team, there were issues. They were typically small and easy to fix but the issues escalated quickly. It went from the operations person who discovered the issue to their manager, to the VP, to the President of the company, to my boss (The CIO) and then it hit my desk as the VP in charge of that area. If you’re counting, that’s 7 steps. I knew where to go to get it fixed and involved an 8th person, Carla. She had recently switched from the operations department to my team in IT and understood the intersection between technology and operations well so was well suited for her new role. But it seems she started making a lot of mistakes all of a sudden. While the fixes were typically minor (e.g. change a number from 100 to 1000), each time I’d need to write up a full report on what happened, how it happened and how it was fixed etc and send it around the organization. It was very frustrating to say the least. Sometimes we needed to meet about it- wasting even more time. Of course I put in preventative steps to ensure that root cause wouldn’t happen again. I reviewed processes and put in more checks and balances. But the next time a different small issue would crop up and trigger a large chain of events. It was reflecting badly on the team, especially Carla as her mistakes came to light. As I worked to close gaps in the development/testing process, I tried to understand how quality tanked and so quickly. Finally in one discussion with Carla, she admitted that these mistakes were always happening. In the past her friend in the operations department would call her with the issue directly. They both came in early so they typically solved issues before others noticed. What had changed was that her friend moved to a different role. With new people in new roles in the organization no one reached across to solve issues and instead went up and down the chain. A small issue became a crisis.

When I rehashed this episode I realized that admitting mistakes early could have solved the issue early when Carla was starting out in her new role and saved countless hours of CYA emails and wasted meetings. Trust is important. Trust that a person won’t get in trouble for making a mistake. Trust to go across the organization. Trust that an issue is being taken care of appropriately. Trust that a manager will have appropriate solutions. 

I realized I needed to do two things: first I had to make her comfortable enough to admit mistakes and gaps in knowledge so we can learn from it and prevent it from happening again. I also needed to give Carla more training. The problems soon went away and Carla succeeded in her role, but first came trust.

As I build a new team I know what I need to start with- Trust me.

In Search of a Teammate

Isn’t it crazy that we spend about half our day with people but we don’t get to choose them? This article is your chance to find out a little about what working on our team will be like. 

The ideal teammate has good character, smarts, and initiative. We try not to get bogged down if a teammate shows up a little late sometimes or wants to leave early to go to their child’s game. Someone with good character would be courteous, communicate and not let it impact their work.

We try to add small twists to the mundane. When you’re asked if you have read this article, just tell us your favorite candy. Why do we care about your favorite treat? Because it’s the little things that make a work environment more interesting. If your favorite treat is waiting for you on your first day, that will get us started on the right foot.

We believe process and proper design are important. Henry Ford didn’t necessarily invent the best car- he invented the best process: the assembly line. Let’s work together to create the best plan to achieve the best results with the least effort.

We strive to create a culture of learning and hope that working together will be fulfilling. Lesson one: the secret to good communication is to get to the point and move on- Brevity.

Let’s make an impact! Join the team:

Consultants and people with big ideas